|He signed this item.|
By Jason Henry | LA Daily News | 3-28-19
A Pennsylvania-based educational rights group is suing UCLA over its failure to release public records related to a campus visit by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed its lawsuit Wednesday and has asked for a court order forcing the university to respond to the records request.
Mnuchin gave a lecture and sat for an interview with Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations in February 2018. Audience members repeatedly hissed and heckled the treasury secretary throughout the speaking engagement. Five protesters were arrested.
“I think they’re going to get more tired than I am,” Mnuchin said during the appearance. “Fat chance,” an audience member shouted.
Mnuchin rescinded permission
Days later, Mnuchin “retracted his permission” to release video of his appearance and the university complied, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper later reported that the Department of the Treasury objected to the video’s release because it provided a “platform for the non-student protesters, who sought to disrupt the event, at the expense of the otherwise thoughtful discussion.” The video showed police officers forcibly removing chanting audience members. Mnuchin is often combative in his responses to Ryssdal’s questioning.
As a result of the controversy, FIRE requested copies of the video of Mnuchin speaking, his contract for the engagement and any communications with Mnuchin or his staff regarding UCLA’s decision to withhold the recording. Eventually, UCLA uploaded the video to its website, stating that the Treasury Department had given consent in light of the public records requests.
‘Unilaterally’ delaying response
FIRE alleges UCLA has failed to release any of the other requested documents and repeatedly delayed issuing a response for more than a year. Most recently, UCLA stated it would reply in late April, 424 days after the initial request, according to FIRE.
“UCLA can’t be allowed to defeat public records law by unilaterally putting off its response deadline forever,” said Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, in a statement. “This is a serious abuse of the public trust. UCLA — and public colleges across the country — must recognize that following the law isn’t a choice.”
UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said the university is aware of the lawsuit and is “reviewing the allegations.”
The university’s initial extension letter stated staff would need to “search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments” before it could comply. California law requires public agencies to provide a “response” to records requests within 10 days and allows an additional 14-day extension for “unusual circumstances.”
The law, however, does not set a time frame for when records must be produced, but rather states records should be made “promptly available” and vaguely bars agencies from delaying or obstructing the review of records.
Still, FIRE alleges UCLA should have responded within 24 days with a determination of whether records existed, as required by law. The lawsuit also states UCLA violated state law by giving Mnuchin control over release of the video.
FIRE pointed to a records request database maintained by the student-run Daily Bruin as evidence of an alleged pattern and practice of delaying responses. The Daily Bruin’s longest outstanding request is nearly 5 years old.
Journalists file objection
The Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to the UC Board of Regents and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office earlier this month criticizing UCLA for not releasing the records to it and other organizations in the past year.
“Since that time, we have received nothing but auto-generated emails every two months, not signed by any individual, telling us they have to revise the timetable because they ‘have not completed the requisite review,’ ” wrote Joel Bellman, SPJ/LA’s ethics committee chair. “It seems quite obvious to us that UCLA has no intention ever of completing it, and are hoping that we will simply give up and go away.”
The letter asks the Board of Regents to force UCLA to comply with state law.